Tag Archives: Afghanistan

Question Time

I’ve just finished watching Question Time, this week a special edition from Wooton Bassett. The guests were General Sir Richard Dannatt, Bill Rammell, William Hague, Paddy Ashdown, Piers Morgan and Salma Yaqoob.

Firstly, I would never want anyone to think that I glorify war, or even like war. Its horrible, its a failure that we ever need to resort to war. It would be great if we never had to go to war again, but sadly there will always be rogue elements in the world who only understand their own language and can only be dealt with by force. And when we do have to do so, it should be done by international agreement and done professionally and properly.

I’m convinced, having studied a multitude of conflicts, recent and not so recent, and especially wars in Afghanistan since the 1830′s, that this is a war where we must not fail. It is not a war that we can win, but that we must not lose. We have to make sure that the Afghan Government and people are helped to stand on their own two feet as soon as possible, and then we leave as soon as we possibly can. To try and put an end date on this would simply not work. Furthermore, some of the things people vaguely quote about previous wars in Afghanistan are simply not true. This is a very different war to any other ever fought in the country.

To simply cut and run would be a disaster and we would end up paying the consequences in kind in years to come. The Taliban would almost certainly re-emerge as the dominant force, which would give free rein to Al Qaeda. This in turn would destabilise Pakistan, a nuclear armed country that has enough problems as it is.

I feel that to argue that we are making the problems worse by being there, and that we should just get out and mind our own business, is nonsensical. We don’t live in a world any longer were we can pull up the drawbridge and ignore events overseas. The world is interconnected, by technology, ideas, culture, money, drugs, anything and everything. Whilst it is sad that we have to do so, I think it is necessary for the international community to intervene if it is in the wider world’s interests. And a lawless and dangerous Afghanistan is in no-ones interest.

I must confess to not agreeing with any of Salma Yaqoob’s arguments, and I suspect her statistics were wrong. They seemed to come more from a standard script of anti-war protest than any realism (yes, we know Tony Blair lied) and showed no understanding of any history, research or regional affairs. The war should have been better managed from the start, Iraq did make us take our eyes off the ball, yes the mishandling of Iraq has tained peoples views on Afghanistan. But those are lessons we must learn and hold to, they are not reasons to give up now. But there is a sort of champagne-socialist trendiness about opposing war, without really understanding the background to it. Its almost a rite of passage for middle class students. The Government has to do better to explain what we are aiming to do there, to disprove such ill-informed views.

But I do think we are watching the death throes of this Government, with lightweights like Bill Rammell being thrown to the slaughter on Question Time. The Labour Government have never taken Defence seriously. At the same time, it has by its Foreign policy committed the forces to do more and more. Only yesterday we heard that Health and Education would be protected from massive cuts, while Defence can expect falling budgets. I am not for one moment advocating cutting money for Schools or Hospitals, but I think there is an awful lot of money in Education and Health that never reaches the front line, and pays for LEA’s, managers, quangos, all kinds of things that add no value or have no effect on ill people or on children. Being an important service should not give anyone carte blanche to waste money while other Departments are being strangled for cash.

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Afghanistan in the News

Theres has been renewed intensity in the reporting of British forces role in Afghanistan recently.

Only on Monday the Prime Minister announced that 500 more troops would be deployed, taking the total number of British personnel deployed in Afghanistan to over 10,000. This comes in line with the US committing an extra 35,000 troops to the country, in a move not dis-similar to the ‘surge’ in Iraq seveal years ago.

As well as the 500 British troops NATO countries have pledged 5,000 troops, among them Turkey, Slovakia, Georgia and Portugal. There are still, however, some notable large European countries who seem unwilling to let their troops do anything too dangerous.

In announcing the new deployments, Gordon Brown spoke of dealing with the Taliban threat at its source – on the Pakistan-Afghan border. This strikes at the heart of the issue of why we are there. To pull out and leave a vacuum would be naive in the extreme. A lawless Afghanistan would destabilise Pakistan, a nuclear country that already has a multitude of internal problems. Meanwhile, to the west Iran is becoming incresingly belligerent. This is a region that cannot afford any more problems than it already has. And this is before we talk about the amount of heroin on Britain’s streets that floods in from Afghanistan.

Attitudes about the mission in Afghanistan are generally quite wrong. People labour under the misapprehension that we are somehow trying to conquer Afghanistan, which is clearly not true. Or, perhaps, they have fashionable but ludicrous and completely unfounded views that we are helping the US to exploit Afghanistan and that our troops are ‘babykillers’. It does not suit the UK, the US or any other country to be there one day longer than they have to be. Besides, there is nothing in Afghanistan to exploit. The goal is clearly to secure the country, fend off terrorist elements and enable the Afghans to take care of their own country. Reconstruction is the key. Help make Afghanistan peaceful, secure and prosperous, and we eliminate the Taliban’s raison d-etre and our own reason for being there. When countries collapse more often than not dangerous regimes fill the vacuum.

Ill-informed commentators draw comparisons between earlier wars in Afghanistan, but to even try to compare them is a grave mistake. Huw Davies makes an excellent case for this. The modern army is one that is used to working with civilians, fighting terrorists, and keeping the peace. Even in 1841, the British Army was not trying to conquer Afghanistan, merely to secure it as a strong from against Russian threats to India. The same kind of issues have been discussed in a recent Osprey guide, which I reviewed earlier this week.

Comparisons are useful in history, but not when there is no common ground at all. The only similarities between the nineteenth century wars in Afghanistan and today are the terrain, the conditions, and the culture. History gives us some valuable lessons in this respect. Protesters vaguely talk about earlier failures, which were in fact nothing of the sort – merely difficult campaigns that eventually achieved their objectives. Afghanistan is not a war without an end – people frequently said the same things about Northern Ireland and Iraq. Maybe there needs to be better information about what exactly our aims are, and the Afghan Government needs to do its bit too, as well as notable NATO countries who could contribute a lot more.

Whereas the war in Iraq was badly handled (particularly the immediate post-war phase), distracted attention from Afghanistan and had dubious effect on us here in the UK, it would take a naive person indeed to argue that the Taliban coming to power would have no effect on stability in the region or on our safety here in the UK. It is a very unpleasant business and it would be much better if we didnt have to be there at all, but history shows us that sometimes to stand back and do nothing solves nothing.


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The Anglo-Afghan Wars 1839-1919 – Gregory Fremont-Barnes

The Anglo-Afghan Wars 1839-1919

The Anglo-Afghan Wars 1839-1919

On a recent visit to Pakistan, a British military official wondered out loud why the Pakistani Army was having such trouble fighting tribal militants in the Waziristan hinterland areas. After all, the British Army was fighting exactly the same war, in exactly the same place, in the 1930′s. The training manuals are still there to be read.

This story might be apocryphal, but it does illustrate how it simply will not do to shut past events in the past and forget about them. Particularly in military history, lessons are there to be learnt. Weapons may change, but terrains and societies remain relatively unchanged. The British soldier in Helmand province fixes Bayonets and clears compounds much the same as his ancestors did in the 19th century.

Therefore, this edition in Osprey’s Essential Histories series is very timely. At a time when many commentators are doubting our role in Afghanistan and whether we can achieve our goals – usually peppered with simplistic comments such as ‘the Russians couldnt manage it’ and ‘we couldnt defeat the Afghans in the nineteenth century’. This book certainly blows apart some misleading assumptions.

Gregory Fremont-Barnes is a Doctor in Modern History and a senior lecturer in War Studies at Sandhurst. Therefore, you probably couldn’t hope for a better qualified writer. And his background is crucial – this is not nostalgic history, it will make essential reading for young – and indeed older – officers serving in Afghanistan today.

The British Army has been fighting in Afghanistan since 1839, not too many years since Waterloo. British interest in Afghanistan arose from fears that Russia, just to the north, might threaten India, the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. Therefore repeated attempts were made to secure Afghanistan as a bulwark against Russian ambitions. Much as in the same way security in Afghanistan today is crucial to the security of Pakistan, and the wider region.

As with so many British campaigns, involvement in Afghanistan was hallmarked by initial failures, followed by which the local leadership rallied and secured the situation. Therefore, popular talk about the British Army failing in Afghanistan is largely inaccurate. The British Army was not trying to conquer Afghanistan, the strategic aim was to secure the north west flank of India, something that was achieved. Whilst Afghanistan has frequently been a hard fight for British soldiers, it has given some heroic tales, such as the Battle of Maiwand.

The overarching lesson from Britain’s experiences in Afghanistan seems to be that the real challenge lies in defeating the irregular forces at large in the country is a complex problem, that can be contained by military force but ultimately will be nullified by a sound ‘hearts and minds’ policy. And above all, an understanding of Afghanistan’s history, topography and society is crucial.

ISAF is not trying to conquer Afghanistan, that is the crucial difference. To do so would be impossible and counter-productive, as shown in this book. That such a learned and well-presented view is espoused by one of the very people instructing our future Army officers is very encouraging indeed. This book is well researched – as shown by the exhaustive bibliography – and contains Ospreys trademark detailed maps and fine artwork.

The Anglo Afghan Wars 1839-1919 is published by Osprey Books


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Former Defence chiefs ’round on Brown’

In an empassioned debate in the House of Lords three former Chiefs of the Defence Staff have asked serious questions of the Government’s policy over Afghanistan.

Admiral Lord Boyce

Admiral Lord Boyce

Lord Boyce said the government “did not realise we are at war” while Lord Inge said the armed forces never really believed Mr Brown was “on their side”. Lord Guthrie, meanwhile, accused Mr Brown of “dithering” over his pledge to send 500 more troops to Afghanistan.

Admiral Lord Boyce was First Sea Lord and then Chief of Defence staff between 2001 and 2003, including the start of the Iraq War. He stated his belief that the UK is in the middle of a “defence train crash”. He also argued that defence spending, as percentage of national income, was falling, and that frequent changes at the Ministry of Defence were destabilising the forces.

General Lord Guthrie

General Lord Guthrie

General Lord Guthrie, a former head of the Army and Boyce’s predecessor as chief of defence staff, said “I do think that military services, the people in the front line, are questioning whether the government is really, really committed to making progress in Afghanistan”.

Field Marshal Lord Inge

Field Marshal Lord Inge

Field Marshal Lord Inge, Guthries predecessor as head of the Army and Defence chief and one of the countries few living Field Marshals, said of the armed forces, “they have felt he has never really been on their side and they have not had his support”.

Such stinging criticism from three of the countries most senior servicemen of recent years has been met with the usual party line from Whitehall. Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth told BBC Radio 4′s World at One: “Lord Guthrie has been making this same speech sadly for some time now”. Yes, of course he has Bob, because you lot won’t listen. For his part, Gordon Brown made the same speech he has been making for several years now, and said it was “simply wrong” to say troops were not getting the support they need, saying Labour had spent £1bn on new armoured vehicles for troops serving there since 2006.

Apart from effectively calling three former senior servicemen liars, Brown neglects to state that £1bn on armoured vehicles does not really go as far as you would like to think. The Government had to be dragged kicking and screaming into replacing the dangerous Snatch Land Rover. In addition, if they have supposedly spent £1bn on vehicles, what about some helicopters? But then again, this Government has an impressive track record for ignoring experts.

One cannot help but feel that the Government is digging itself into a hole with its continued propaganda that it is supporting the armed forces, when the evidence clearly suggests that it does not. To a public who support their servicemen and women more than at any time since 1982, it all smacks of lies and arrogance.

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killed Colonel warned of Helicopter shortages

Lt-Col Rupert Thorneloe

Lt-Col Rupert Thorneloe

A British Lieutenant-Colonel who was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan had only weeks previously warned superiors that men would die because helicopter shortages were forcing troops to travel by road.

Lieutenant-Colonel Rupert Thorneloe, Commanding Officer of the Welsg Guards, also told commanders that the organisation of helicopter support in Afghanistan was ‘not fit for purpose’, a leaked memo reveals. On June 5, in his “Battle Group Weekly Update” to the Ministry of Defence, he wrote: “I have tried to avoid griping about helicopters — we all know we don’t have enough. We cannot not move people, so this month we have conducted a great deal of administrative movement by road. This increases the IED threat and our exposure to it.”

Despite this the Government and the Ministry of Defence insist that there are enough helicopters in Afghanistan, effectively calling a liar a man who died in action. If a senior commander on the ground says that he does not have enough of something, it should not be for whitehall warriors or mandarins to say that he doesnt know what he’s talking about. Whilst helicopters would not eliminate risk – men still need to be on the ground and to close with the enemy – they would reduce vulnerability dramatically. The gall of the politicians is unbelievable.

Part of the problem perhaps is the history behind the Royal Air Force. Traditionally the RAF has prided itself on fast jets, fighters and bombers. Whilst these are no doubt valuable and very impressive assets, this is to the detriment of more important roles such as support helicopters, close air support and long range transport. Fighters are an independent, sexy feature of the RAF. Whereas the other roles are unglamorous and involve working with other services, and as the junior service the RAF is fiercely protective of its independence. Look at the background of senior RAF officers – by far the majority of them are ex-fighter or bomber pilots.

It would surely be accurate to state that British Military Aviation is hardly fit for purpose. We currently have no dedicated maritime fighter-bombers to operate from our aircraft carriers, instead relying on RAF Harriers, which is hardly ideal. The Army invests in its own close support assets in the shape of the Apache gunship helicopter. There are nowhere near enough support helicopters, particularly the Chinook workhorses. Meanwhile, the RAF has some 200 Eurofighter Typhoons to show off in. An incredible aircraft, but it does illustrate much that is wrong with British military policy in the 21st Century.

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Costcutting blamed for Nimrod crash

Bae Nimrod

And independent review into a fatal crash of an RAF Nimrod aircraft in 2006 has found that the Ministry of Defence placed cutting costs before safety, reports the BBC website.

The highly critical report by an expert in aviation law found that there was a ‘systematic breach’ in the military covenant, between the armed forces and the Government. Fourteen crewmen, based at RAF Kinloss in Moray, died when the aircraft blew up after air-to-air refuelling over Afghanistan when leaking fuel made contact with a hot air pipe.

Between 1998 and 2006 financial targets became the most important concern in the MOD, over-riding safety. This was as the result of a culture of ‘getting on’, that meant amibitious officers and civil servants had to keep on top of their budgets at all costs if they wished to progress. The report also identified ‘fundamental failures of leadership’ on the part of two senior RAF Officers.

Shadow defence secretary Liam Fox said the report was a “formidable indictment” and “genuinely shocking”, containing information that previous incidents and warning signs had been ignored. Liberal Democrat defence spokesman Nick Harvey said: “This is a tragic case of an accident that could have been avoided.”

The Ministry of Defence has grounded all Nimrods whose engine-bay hot air ducts had not been replaced.

The report raises serious questions not only about the RAF and individuals, but about broader culture in the Ministry of Defence and how it is at odds with the values of the armed forces. There has also been a clear lack of ministerial responsibility throughout.

The Nimrod aircraft are used for reconnaisance in war zones. Developed from the ancient De Havilland Comet, they have been in service since 1969 and have recently been plagued by controversy over whether they are fit for purpose. All Nimrod MR2 aircraft are due to be replaced by new MR4A, although whether this rehash of an old plane will be sufficient remains to be seen. What was initially an order for 21 has been reduced eventually to 9. Meanwhile, 200 Eurofighters eat up the RAF’s budget.


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PM ‘refused extra Afghan troops’

General Sir Richard Dannatt

General Sir Richard Dannatt

Prime Minister Gordon Brown ignored military chiefs advice and refused a reinforcement of British troops in Afghanistan, the former head of the Army has said.

General Sir Richard Dannatt, who made himself very unpopular in Whitehall with his straight talking manner, told the Sun that ministers had to be taken “screaming and kicking” to agree to necessary measures, and that for some time the military had been operating “at least part of one arm tied behind one’s back”.

Of course Downing Street has come out and denied the claims, effectively calling General Dannatt a liar. Whilst Dannatt was still in office civil servants were briefing against him, no doubt unhappy with his frank statements about the lack of funding and equipment for the armed forces. He would normally have been a candidate for promotion to Chief of the Defence Staff, but this was vetoed by the Prime Minister.

If more reinforcements are needed, and the Government is – for whatever reason – unwilling to approve them, then they should put pressure on our NATO allies, some of whom are contributing very little at the moment. In one sense the Government is right to be careful about troop increases, as we are overstretched as it is. In a sense more British troops would only add added pressure.

But there are bigger issues than troop increases here. The armed forces may have a duty to follow the direction of the Government, but they also have an equally important duty to their men and women below them. The fact remains that our servicemen and women are being asked to put their life on the line, and soldiers respect commanders who stand up for them with the politicians. Some things go beyong party politics, and defence policy should be one of them. It is a dangerous precedent to set for Generals who speak the truth as they see it to be hounded out of office for not following the party line. This happened frequently in the first world war – generals who didnt say what the government wanted to hear were fired. And Winston Churchill himself was notoriously impatient with his Generals.

Hopefully Richard Dannatt will publish his memoirs. They would make very interesting reading indeed.


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Soldier’s troops plea to minister

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth

Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth

A British soldier in Afghanistan has told the Defence Secretary ‘more troops are needed on the ground, BBC News reports.

Bob Ainsworth had asked Staff Sgt Kim Hughes, a bomb disposal specialist, what was his “top desire from right here at the chalkface”.

Staff Sgt Hughes explained: “More equipment’s ideal, I mean we have lightweight equipment coming in gradually … but more troops on the ground, more equipment, less troops on the ground, less equipment.”

Ainsworth went on to explain that any boost in troop numbers had to be borne across the coalition of countries deploying troops in Afghanistan, and not just the UK. And he certainly has a point. The British Army is already at a critical point of overstretching, with many troops having to return to Afghanistan for 6 month tours within a year of their last tour. The statistics also suggest that Helmand is one of the most challenging assignments in Afghanistan, compared to some of the relatively peaceful areas where other countries troops are based.

In many ways not having enough troops could be as dangerous as having none there at all. Without the men to hold ground, troops frequently have to withdraw and let the Taliban return after they have been routed. More men on the ground should mean more security, and more of a visible presence that ISAF is a much more viable alternative than the Taliban.

Given the long-running controversy about lack of equipment and safe armoured vehicles for the Army to use in Helmand, the Government will probably be happier for attention to fall on troop numbers. Britain is quite clearly doing more than its bit and the general public probably feel that it is the responsibility of others to contribute more.

But even so, this should not detract from the fact that the Government has a duty to provide our servicemen and women with the very best that they can.

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